How Cillian Murphy’s Batman Screen Test Turned into the Scarecrow

Cillian Murphy made his mark as the villainous Scarecrow in Batman Begins, but he was originally in the running to play the Dark Knight himself.

Cillian Murphy's Batman Begins screen test as Batman and Bruce Wayne.
Photo: Warner Bros. Pictures

Batman Begins was a curiosity before it became known as the launcher of director Christopher Nolan’s genre-transformative trilogy. After all, it arrived in the ignominious aftermath of 1997’s Batman & Robin, making it a reboot few fans were asking for. Of course, the film proved to be a solid foundation for a franchise thanks to the dualistic performance of lead Christian Bale and—no less significantly—the villainous performance of Cillian Murphy as Dr. Jonathan Crane, a.k.a. the Scarecrow. Interestingly, Murphy was close to donning the cape and cowl himself, a process he now looks back upon.

Murphy has fielded a successful career in film and television—notably starring on crime series Peaky Blinders—following his performance as Crane/Scarecrow in Batman Begins, which also included memorably madcap cameo reprisals in 2008’s The Dark Knight and 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises. While he’s currently promoting a prominent part in John Krasinski’s impending horror sequel, A Quiet Place II, the topic of Murphy’s tenure in Nolan’s trilogy-launcher was raised in an interview with THR, in which he reminisced on being a finalist for the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman before he went the antagonist route.

“I don’t believe I was close to landing that role,” Murphy confessed. “The only actor who was right for that part at that time, in my estimation, was Christian Bale, and he absolutely smashed it. So, for me, it was just an experience, and then it turned into something else. It turned into that character, Scarecrow, and it turned into a working relationship with Chris. So, I think back very, very fondly on that time, but I never, ever, ever considered myself Bruce Wayne material.” Contextually, Murphy was still relatively early into his career during this 2003 phase, but had turned heads with roles in films such as 2002 outbreak horror film 28 Days Later and 2003 period drama Cold Mountain. This made him a rather creative candidate for the Batman role before it went to Bale.

Consequently, Irish actor Murphy found himself in an interesting position, one that was shared with the Wales-born Bale—who was a known commodity at the time—and the obscure choice of Eion Bailey (Fight Club, Band of Brothers), the latter of whom was the lone Yank of the group. After beating out high-profile seekers such as Jake Gyllenhaal, Joshua Jackson, Josh Hartnett, David Boreanaz, and even eventual The Dark Knight Joker, Heath Ledger, the trio of Murphy, Bale, and Bailey advanced far enough to a screen test phase, which saw the trio put in performances (opposite Amy Adams reading for Rachel Dawes, the role that eventually went to Katie Holmes,) as both Bruce Wayne and a fully suited-up Batman—albeit in a costume Warner Bros. left over from director Joel Schumacher’s 1995 entry, Batman Forever. These screen tests are now accessible for posterity on YouTube (watch the video above).

Ad – content continues below

There’s a dynamic here that poetically mirrors another popular (Marvel) comic book film franchise, Thor, since villainous Loki actor Tom Hiddleston was initially in the running to play the titular hero. Yet, Murphy losing out on a prospective career-making role could have been seen as a significant setback, but he carries a clear outlook on what he now realizes was a slim-at-best chance for landing that leading role against the now-iconic performances of Bale across the eventual trilogy.

Unlike fellow finalist Bailey, Murphy managed to salvage that failed prospect, since it would—via some dimensional thinking from Nolan—transition into him landing the role of Crane/Scarecrow. The character was not only one of the film’s main villains, but the one who came to be in focus in the film’s trailers and ephemera, since Liam Neeson’s Henri Ducard, who was secretly main villain Ra’s al Ghul, was initially depicted as Bruce Wayne’s mentor, and any such promotional depiction would have been a massive spoiler for a significant third act plot twist.

Nevertheless, Murphy’s failure was fortuitous, especially when viewed in the context of his unsuccessful Bruce Wayne screen tests, which were delivered with the kind of wide-eyed, serial killer countenance evocative of the role he would eventually field. Indeed, his depiction of Dr. Jonathan Crane was, quite literally, a case of an inmate running the asylum, since the character—despite the respectable façade of an Arkham Asylum psychiatrist—was a secret shill for mob boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), whose thugs avoided imprisonment with Crane’s phony psychological diagnoses. However, he was also integral to Ra’s al Ghul’s sinister plan to cleanse Gotham City of its unsavory elements (and everyone else as well) by way of his self-developed fear toxin.

Murphy’s Scarecrow became the villainous burlap-sack face of Batman Begins, which grossed a respectable $373.6 million worldwide, setting up two sequels that each hit the $1 billion mark at the global box office. Not bad, as consolation prizes go.

In the meantime, you can catch Murphy alongside John Krasinski and Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place II, which premieres on Friday, May 28.